Friday, 23 December 2016

Hull coming along

Moorings in the loch, waiting for boats

It's great to be back doing something creative after three years working in the shadow of other highly creative people in the fine art world. I think that without realising it I became a bit intimidated by being surrounded by a group of incredibly talented folk. Of course good artists work very hard at keeping their skill levels up and that's true of boatbuilding as well.  Actually with boatbuilding persistence trumps skill and in wood working it's always possible to fix blunders, provided you spot them early.

It's exactly thirty years since my first build and four years since my most recent one, which is too long a gap because I find I'm remaking old mistakes.

I deliberately carry no advertising on this blog, which means that when praise is offered it is unsolicited and really meant. I can't praise highly enough the effort and care taken by Alec Jordan in providing a kit of planks and moulds, absolutely true to the millimetre, but of course unforgiving as a result. This has taken months off the building time, even if I had possessed space big enough to loft the planks. As it is they have to be assembled in the house and only the incredible suppleness of Vendia Plank allows it into the workshop for cleaning up.

Once the planks are ready I have to walk them along to the building shed, lent by a wonderful neighbour.

Progress so far has been quite good, more than half the hull planked in less than a fortnight, working in an open shed in winter. Planks five six and seven are nearly ready to go, but I'll need to wait for the storm to abate because if I take one outside just now I'll be blown across to the top of Cruachan.

First half of plank one, 9 December

Plank two installed, 15 December

Plank four done, 22 December

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Lovely Boat-building Weather

It's a great delight being able to build a boat by the sea and especially nice in Argyll, where the weather is better than anywhere else.

Building any boat requires a lot of time spent on the plans, as it's easy to miss important details, even when Iain's drawings are beautifully drawn and self-explanatory. The more I study them the more I feel that the Kotik design is ideal for safe inshore cruising in comfort, the latter guaranteed by the installation of a Sardine Stove.

I pondered for a while on the rig and decided on the sloop rather than the yawl option. The main advantage of yawl rig in a small boat is getting home safely in a blow, but the cost is a cluttered stern deck and many more fiddly ropes to keep tidy. A small trysail seems a more sensible option.

It seems quite a while since the wood for the keelson, stems and so on arrived on the old car, now gone to Volvo Valhalla, as my devout brother says, "Rust to Rust and Bashes to Bashes".

I'm trying a few innovations with this build, including choice of materials. I chose Accoya for the main structural parts, as it doesn't rot. It's an interesting material. A fast-growing softwood such as Radiata Pine, grown in huge quantities in New Zealand, is sent to the Netherlands where it is pickled in vinegar and machined into useable planks. It's now the wood of choice for makers of good quality timber windows and I'm sorry it wasn't used in our house.

I got some big chunks of this stuff from James Latham & Sons at Eurocentral and it may be the first they have supplied for a boat. It's pretty well clear and stable, as can be seen from the images showing the forward stem in place, fitting perfectly.

The stems were made a few months ago, while details of the kit were sorted out with Alec Jordan

Having the planks machined by Alec means that I may get a chance to sail this boat before I expire. I reckon that 90% of the time spent on my yellow boat was marking out and spiling planks, which I still didn't get entirely right.

It was a great day when the kit arrived, fortunately dry and sunny, as it usually is here of course.

The plank pieces are easily extracted with a Japanese saw. It's a huge mistake, as happened with the Seil skiff, to allow a bunch of old guys with jigsaws to do this. The pieces come out fine, but you've got days of work removing what's left of the wee webs every foot or so.

In line with the spirit of innovation I'm using the Finnish Vendia Plank for the hull. Most glued clinker boats are dry-sailed, but this one will spend months on a mooring and I don't trust conventional "marine" plywood. The Vendia is made differently. Rather than the tree being peeled, as by a giant's pencil sharpener, the wood is sliced lengthwise and reconstituted with most laminations running that way, meaning that you get a stable, very strong material.

Here are some images of progress to date.

Just enough space in the house

Mould one goes below the building base line.

pin-holes showing that Mr Holmes is an old hand with his bandsaw

Saturday, 1 October 2016

A Twenty first Century Model of Livadia

The memory of childhood visits to the Kevingrove Art Gallery, from the era when much of the ground floor was devoted to the ship models, has stayed with me, in common I’m sure with many other Glaswegians of a certain age. Among the sleek racing yachts of George Lennox Watson and the great Clydebuilt liners some real oddities stood out, none more than the almost circular Russian Imperial yacht Livadia, her mystique enhanced by her association with the exotically named Admiral Popov.

In the old days you couldn’t touch the models in their glass cases, but at least you could see them from all sides and get a real sense of their form and beauty. As the years went by they seem to have diminished in importance, first moving to the old Transport Museum at Kelvin Hall, where only a fraction of the total complement was on show, then on to the Riverside Museum, where it seems even fewer can be seen. Much worse, the survivors are now largely built into wall displays. Livadia in particular is currently immured at a height that makes it impossible to appreciate her remarkable design.

The Riverside model was built to the order of Sir William Pearce, the owner of John Elder & Co, and for many decades it sat in a case in the boardroom at Fairfield. A second, more elaborate, model was built at a reputed cost in 1880 of £500 (about £50,000 in today’s money) and sent by Pearce as a present to his client Tsar Alexander II. It sits today in a museum in St Petersburg.

Such models were an important part of the process of obtaining an order and creating goodwill for the builder. Pearce would have realised that the model would enable the Tsar’s dream to be shared with an audience who would otherwise have had little opportunity to see the ship in real life and put his shipyard into the limelight.  It gave the Tsar the opportunity to explain his designer’s radical ideas to those who may have had little or no experience or interest in reading technical drawings. No doubt he would also have pictured himself strolling the spacious decks or hosting a reception or ball in rooms of a size and proportion not usually found on a ship.

Viewing that model, it would be easy for the layman to appreciate just how radical a departure from the conventional Livadia was to be.  It would have been obvious that thanks to the ship’s enormous beam it would be stable in the water (and incidentally make a steady gun platform), for this was the thinking behind the project.

At the Leiper Gallery we decided that our contribution to the Festival of Architecture would be an exhibition dedicated to the life and work of William Leiper and we wanted to include Livadia, which played a significant part in his story, the commission to design the interior being a sufficiently attractive project to lure him back from Paris to resume his architectural practice.

This raised the question, should we try to borrow an existing model or commission a new one? Faced with a choice between which of the two great cities would be more easily persuaded to lend its model we decided not to try.

Model making as a craft has been around for centuries and has greatly moved on recently. Victorian modellers sought total accuracy, a “good” ship model being expected to show every screw and rivet, even where it was impossible to produce this truly to scale. Sadly the effect of doing this could be  distortion and a loss of the viewer’s ability to appreciate form.

Recently a young pretender emerged in the form of Virtual Reality.  But this has some major shortcomings. Interfacing with the world via a screen or visor though impressive, even useful in some applications, has distinct limitations.

A physical model is passive until the viewer approaches it, then without any need for intervening technology he starts to explore the subject, to engage with it on his own terms. Every child will start to examine some new object not just visually but with the fingers, the sense of touch adding another perspective to understanding. Adults do not lose the urge to reach out and feel even the most delicate detail, so sadly many models have to be protected behind glass.

We felt that we had to have a physical, rather than a virtual, model and wanted something that would demonstrate the best that can be achieved with current technologies.

The search for a modeller who would deliver on time to the finest quality was simplified by the discovery that James Pierce of Ambleside had recently acquired Russian in-laws and was likely to be favourably disposed towards the idea.

James studied at Lancaster College of Art and graduated with First Class Honours in Modelmaking for Design & Media from the Bournemouth Arts Institute.  After brief periods with Dyson and the architectural model maker Threadgill  in London he headed back north bringing with him hands-on experience of the latest materials and computer aided machining techniques.  But, perhaps most importantly a fresh approach to model making, a sense of theatre.

Ten years ago he became a partner in a Cumbrian company. Initially the firm built full-sized yachts, moving later to become established as  a world-leading manufacturer of ship and yacht research models. In 1995 & 2000 they contributed to the success of New Zealand’s America’s Cup victory and numerous super-yachts, after which building ‘real’ yachts fell by the wayside to concentrate on research and concept modelmaking. 

With towing tank models the emphasis has to be on accuracy, but concept models primarily require inspiration to make a project come to life. Such models are the client’s first tangible, physical link with a new ship or super yacht design. The excitement of everyone involved is at quite a different level, way above viewing a set of drawings or a computer animation. The project is coming to life. Model making is no longer a technical skill, it is elevated to an art form.
It is interesting to compare the 1880 Livadia model at the Riverside Museum with James’s 2016 interpretation. Having engaged the onlooker without blinding him with an excess of detail a thousand questions are posed, the perfect way to start a new conversation.

All images courtesy of James and Richard Pierce

Thursday, 29 September 2016

The Romanov yacht Livadia - Imperial vanity or prototype weapon of war?

There’s an old saying that the last things anyone wants on a yacht are an umbrella or a naval officer, but a fairy fountain decorated by electric lights in changing colours and sitting in a circular basin surrounded by floral displays must come close.

The fountain, built from statuary marble by Messrs Galbraith & Winton, who were later to create the interior of Glasgow City Chambers, was only one extraordinary feature of Tsar Alexander’s fantastic floating palace Livadia II, built by John Elder & Co at Fairfield in 1880.

Shaped like a giant turbot, the ship measured 259 feet in length with a beam of 153 feet. She was probably the biggest and certainly the most expensive ship launched into the upper reach of the Clyde at that time.

For the Glasgow architect William Leiper the commission to design the interior of this extraordinary floating palace was sufficiently attractive to bring him back from his spell as an art student at the Ecole Julian in Paris.  One can only guess at the excitement he must have felt on being given an unlimited budget to indulge his imagination.

The Architect (23 October 1880) described there being on the awning deck the great State Saloon, 70 feet by 40 feet, “in the plan of an elongated octagon of twelve wide-span elliptic arches” with at one end a highly architectural sideboard with Ionic columns, the Imperial arms supported by carved figures and “foliage festoons” with elaborate candelabras The ceiling was richly moulded and carved in white ivory relieved in gold, the seating in the finest French silk tapestry against a backdrop of heavy crimson plush curtains, the whole in the style of Louis Seize. 

Leiper commissioned the stained glass artist Andrew Wells to design the ceiling of a suite in “Crimean Tartar” style and William de Morgan made a minor but significant contribution with tiles of a special artichoke pattern.

image courtesy of the de Morgan Foundation

That the commission to create the flagship of the Imperial Romanovs, one of the wealthiest families in the World, came to Glasgow was a great tribute to the skills and versatility not only of Glasgow’s shipwrights but also her craftsmen and women. There was also a serious purpose, because for some years naval strategists had been discussing what form the battleships of the future should take, given the new technologies that were developing.

In 1868 the Scottish engineering genius John Elder had read a paper at the Royal United Services Institute entitled “Circular Ships of War, with immersed motive power”, arguing that increasing the beam of a warship could enable it to carry heavier armaments. This was probably based on thinking about some of the vessels involved in the American civil war, in which Elder had played a significant role by providing the Confederate navy with many of its fast blockade runners. He would have become aware of the circular monitors that the Americans had developed.

Vice-Admiral Andrei Alexandrovich Popov was attracted to Elder’s concept and in September 1879 appointed John Elder & Co to construct the Livadia as a prototype. By this time the yard was owned by the formidable Isabella Elder, John’s widow, who had head-hunted William Pearce to run it. It seems that Popov gave the yard at Fairfield an unlimited budget, the price being on a “cost plus” basis with a massive bonus if the ship exceeded fifteen knots on her trials.

William Pearce, assisted by the Dutch engineer Bruno Tideman, produced a modified version of Popov’s design, reputedly  towing a one-tenth sized scale model about Loch Lomond. The result was a turbot-shaped hull, 259 feet (79m) long with a maximum beam of 153 feet (47m), that was launched before about 10,000 spectators on 7 July 1880, when she was named by the Duchess of Hamilton and blessed by a Russian Orthodox priest. Her machinery included three main engines for propulsion and about twenty smaller ones to drive equipment and generate electricity, powering inter alia the fountain.

On 27 September Livadia on her third attempt achieved a speed of 15.725 knots, her engines running in excess of an estimated 12,000HP, earning Pearce a bonus of 414,000 Rubles on top of the base price of about 2.7 million Rubles.

At the end of September Livadia left the Clyde on her maiden voyage. At Plymouth the Grand Duke Constantine joined the ship. On October 19 she left Brest despite warnings of foul weather further south, the Grand Duke insisting that there was no better opportunity to put the yacht through her paces than to have her ride out a storm.

The following three days and nights were a nightmare for the imperial passengers, with the Livadia meeting 27 foot waves. With her shallow draught and blunt entrance she was unable to part the seas, as a narrower ship would have done, instead slamming onto them from above. On the third day the crew found that at least one of the bottom compartments was no longer watertight and it was decided to put into Ferrol in North West Spain, where divers reported that the hull had suffered quite extensive damage. Through the winter, while repairs went on below, the public spaces were used to host numerous balls and high society events.

Tsar Alexander never got a chance to enjoy his eccentric yacht. By the time she arrived in the Black Sea in the Spring of 1881 he had been assassinated. Oddly, Livadia had indirectly saved his life a year earlier, when a bomb placed by one Stefan Khalturin in the basement of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, directly under the dining hall, went off at exactly half past six, but the Tsar, a man of very punctual habits, wasn’t there. He had taken a detour to show his mistress Princess Catherine Dolgoruki the model of the Livadia, a present from her builders, which had arrived that day.

A future post will discuss the building of the model illustrated in the opening image

Thursday, 18 August 2016

A Start is made

Inner stems made
After a couple of years of thinking about it a decision about the next boat has been made and she’s going to be a Kotik, the extended Wee Seal design from the board of Iain Oughtred. In deference to Francois Vivier I have to say that his Beniguet is utterly lovely and only lost out after very careful reflection, on the basis that I don’t think she’s quite enough boat for our West coast, the cabin is a bit cramped for comfort and the cockpit correspondingly larger than really required.

I’ve always loved Iain’s designs and Wee Seal was rejected only because she seemed a bit like her name implies, just a wee bit wee. The stretched version has emerged since I last acquired the book of plans and it’s going to be just possible to build her in the space that’s available to me.

Boats always seem very big when you’re building them and terribly small when you’re offshore in a blow. You have to compromise between what one person can handle and achieving reasonable seaworthiness and maximising speed (as ability to get home fast has saved a lot of lives over the centuries).

It’s also important to build something that looks nice and to my eye the sheerline on the Kotik is quite lovely.

Finally it’s nice to have one’s friends involved. Iain has been a pal for years, as has Richard whose comments on displacement, design and internal layout are invaluable, Alec who is doing the kit, and Mr Holmes of Barbreck, who will be planing the wood on a machine that started life on a battleship. For him it will be a change from making Georgian windows.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Gigha on the West Coast

Utterly lovely video of my old friend Scott and his son on their yacht Gigha. She's a couple of years younger than my Stroma.

The footage towards the end reminds me of sailing over the same waters in Stroma, in similar conditions, in the Summer of 1977, tramping along in a good breeze with no worries, knowing that these old ladies know the coast better than we will ever do and will always look after their custodians.

It's great that another generation is coming through to experience the truly civilised behaviour of a properly engineered, if unengined, little ship.

Watch the video here:

The Raeburns on Gigha

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Islanders again

There's a simplicity and serenity about a Scottish Islander that you just don't get with a modern yacht. 

Canna is back afloat after a spectacular restoration by Adam Way and I'm incredibly envious of the great grandsons of her first owner, who form her new crew.

It's forty years since Stroma came into my life and she's still sitting on the hard at Cairnbaan, in the care of the aforesaid Adam, waiting for a new custodian.

Friday, 27 May 2016

Unrecorded History

On a point near an abandoned croft, the history of the ordinary folk is unwritten.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Looking across Cuan Sound

There's a little video of our trip back on now!

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Return from Luing

Political mooring post
For the fourteenth year the muster people duly assembled for a weekend of serious sailing, eating and culture. It's not every small island that can host a proper ceilidh with turns that included a Telemann flute concerto, but Luing is special that way.

This year the sun shone and a steady wind blew, ideal conditions for the fleet of little boats to reach South down to one of our favourite bays a mile or so North of the Dorus Mor. On the yellow Kelpie I shipped along an illustrious crew, the guru from Bernisdale himself handling the jib, Judie and Phoenix on the bailers. After lunch the wind freshened and we had a fast circumnavigation of Shuna back to base, to unwind a bit before the festivities. Sunday was more of the same, with Clare and Tina working the ship, a picnic on Eilean Gamhna and a really hard beat back home, as the weather was returning to the usual West coast pattern. As usual the weekend finished with some intellectual stimulation in the form of diverse lectures on coracle building, open boat sailing, chaos theory and such like topics.

The change in the weather had been predicted, so the ship was left ashore and recovered on the Friday. Buses are few in Argyll, but friendly neighbours aplenty. There was a funeral at Kilbrandon and our kindly minister gave me a lift to the graveyard, from where it was only half an hour's brisk walk to the ferry. (The old kirk contains some of the finest stained glass windows in Scotland, by the wonderful Douglas Strachan.)

Kilbrandon Kirk on a sunny morning
The wee ferry at Cuan

It didn't take a lot to persuade Richard Pierce to join me for the sail across and the voyage back. It was the best sail of the year so far, sparkling seas and a steady wind giving us a reach across. A couple of hours later the wind had veered a bit and Richard had another reach back, covering the seven miles in about an hour and a quarter in his flying machine.

Reaching down Shuna Sound

Past Degnish Point

Home, at rest

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Return to the Sea (and blogging)

The last couple of years have been extremely busy for me, as I have been involved in establishing a fine art gallery in Glasgow, see As a result I've hardly been sailing and have had little time for blogging.

Both of my yachts, Stroma and Juni, are for sail, through , which doesn't mean the end of yachting for me, but a change of course. It's forty years since I became the guardian of Stroma and I no longer have the strength or the nerve to get the most out of her. Juni is an absolute delight, a mahogany gem on the water. Now that she's restored to a reasonable condition I feel that I have done my duty by her and hope that she'll find her way to a peaceful mooring at the foot of someone's garden in a nice part of the World.

The old adage was a foot (waterline) for each year of age, but that probably always was complete rubbish and certainly is now in our austere age when virtually nobody sails with a paid crew. In my view it makes good sense to reduce the size of the boat to keep it manageable.  I marvel at the faith of elderly folk in the use of hydraulics to weigh anchor and electric winches to get in massive genoas. I'd far rather sacrifice a little comfort and speed by keeping the ship small enough to work safely without such things and mainly single-handed, as most of my sailing is destined to be solitary.

I've been checking out Francois Vivier's Beniguet , which looks just about right for the purpose. Any comments would be appreciated.

Meanwhile Scottish Coastal Rowing continues to spread. I've mainly been rowing with the Isle of Seil's Selkie but I'm now getting involved in the new Glasgow Coastal Rowing Club, which currently hasn't a website, but can be found on Facebook.

And the lovely historic Isle of Luing continues to exert its pull. Last weekend a couple of dozen small skiffs, wherries and similar classic shapes were to be seen thrashing about in a stiff breeze in the wonderful stretch of water North of Crinan. the photograph at the top of this post shows my Kelpie charging along on a reach with self at the helm, Iain Oughtred forward and Judy and Phoenix bailing, the old Ensign of Scotland on the sail and the Toberonochy Dolphin flying at the stern.

photo courtesy of Mark Robertson

The Wherrymen

The Wherrymen
Two old friends on the water